Creating the experience (part 2)

8f43dbe06e33e2197a5ad3a320c2ce28Yesterday, I was talking about how our interactions and our experiences with a place, product or brand really shape our feelings and our loyalty about it.

I mentioned two well known brands: one active brand (Apple) and one defunct brand (Marshall Field’s).

I wanted to look at the idea of creating and managing an experience with a new, local restaurant: Great Lake.

If you haven’t heard the buzz about Andersonville’s Great Lake, here’s the lowdown: Great Lake makes pizza. It would be incorrect to say it’s a pizzeria; it carefully and deliberately makes a few varieties of pie a day, and is generally open for just a few hours.

Ordinarily, a place like this might have been noticed only by locals and Yelp devotees (like me), but all hell broke loose when GQ named it the best pizza in the country this spring.

Yes, in the COUNTRY.

That’s brought a level of attention and anticipation that isn’t likely to be diminished by this Sunday’s profile in the Chicago Tribune.

That profile draws a pretty vivid picture of Great Lake as a very lo-fi, independent retailer, run by two people who love food, respect the process of making fine pizza – and also want to define their experience as well as their customer’s experience.

Their approach counteracts conventional marketing wisdom at every corner. Great Lake is only open four days a week for a handful of hours a day. There’s been no advertising, and Great Lake doesn’t have a Web site. The seating capacity on the premises? A whopping fourteen seats.

With all the raves about the food, there has also been complaints and frustrations. With limited seating, limited ingredients and limited time, several people have come to Great Lake only to be repeatedly told before they’re able to order that the shop has run out of food for the evening.

And with anything that challenges the status quo, Great Lake is now the subject of insults, ridicule and basic derision, all along the same lines: What can they make for me that I can’t get at Lou Malnati’s/Giordano’s/fill-in-the-blank-pizza-shop?

Here’s my take: I think Great Lake has created a great customer experience. Quality will always make a sustained impression on a customer, and I’m sure visitors to Great Lake are walking away as advocates for the experience. Word of mouth is the best advertising – and it’s free.

It’s a new idea for pizza, perhaps, to be so “lo-fi” about it, but this feels like it’s a part of the “Slow Food” movement. Slow food isn’t necessarily about speed (though that’s part of it), but it’s also about using local ingredients (which Great Lake does) and sustainable practices to deliver food to your plate.

On a scale of 1 to 100, I’d give Great Lakes a 90 (not that they asked). I think it’s completely their call to shape and define the experience THEY want running the business, as well as the customers’ experience. I do think there’s room for them to be clearer about that consumer experience, and room to improve how that experience is managed in terms of expectations. (Saying that Chicago has “some of the worst customers” is not a very engaging first step.)

These creative, clever people are smart enough to come up with a way to coordinate reservations, or somehow better balance time, resources and product. At minimum, they need to be more specific and more detailed with information so that customers know what to expect. If they continue to have customers trying to access the experience and walking away empty handed, that word of mouth will become negative.

Speaking of experiences: I thought it was very interesting that the Tribune profile mentioned Smoque, the BBQ restaurant near Pulaski and Irving Park. I’ve been there several times, and the food is amazing, but the restaurant is in an incredibly small space. I’ve had increasingly negative experiences there, and my last experience has me doubting that I’ll go back.

The main issue is how the space is being utilized. Tables are grouped together, so you’re likely to be eating next to complete strangers. The line to the register and pick-up area diagonally divides the space and takes up a huge amount of the available square footage.

On my last visit, I was seated near two large garbage cans that snapped shut every few seconds. There were dozens of people around me, not only seated next to me (which is fine – I’m not that fussy or claustrophobic) but also standing above and around our table, which was near the pickup area.

Imagine sitting at a table and eating. Now imagine that said table is in the middle of a football huddle, and you get an idea of what our experience was like.

It’s hard to savor the flavors of your food, and the sensory joy of the eating experience, when you have the ass of a complete stranger mere inches from your face.

I’m a pretty laid back guy, but a lot happened that evening that broke the straw on the camel’s back for me. I was elbowed a half dozen times, twice in the face. One elbow knocked food onto my shirt. Someone spilled their drink on me, and another person who threw their food into the garbage ended up splashing BBQ sauce on me. And when we were ready to leave, we were stuck because people simply would NOT move.

From a design/efficiency perspective, I think the space is being really poorly utilized inside.

I wish Barry Sorkin, Smoque’s owner, would go to Five Guys on Clybourn. Yes, that sounds insane (Five Guys is a burger joint), but I’m not sending him there for the food.

I want him to see how they utilize a very similar space. Their line snakes around the front perimeter of the store, which keeps it organized and out of the center of the space. THAT means there are more room for tables, and more room for people to get back and forth in the restaurant.

Smoque has almost the same layout – it’s a big square box that’s perhaps a bit wider and a bit shallower. A little design and ingenuity means Sorkin could keep the space he has without giving in to any ideas of expansion, or any pressure for him to change the place, the pace, or the experience that HE wants to offer.

Think about it, Barry. My jaw and my dry cleaning bill will thank you for it.


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